Environmentalism, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency and Andreas Malm

13 March, 2021

Environmentalism, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency and Andreas Malm

Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency has become the reference book of environmentalism during the pandemic. It includes quotes galore from Rosa Luxemburg, invocations of ecological Leninism, the call to expropriate the oil companies and long arguments in favor of a type of tactical catastrophism that would be a tailwind for revolutionaries. But for what revolution? Who and for what purpose would make it?

In this article

Environmentalism’s discourse on Covid

Environmentalism, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency by Andreas Malm

The first part of Malm’s argument is a lengthy piece attempting to establish a common root between climate change and Covid. His thesis correctly links zoonosis, animal-to-human disease hopping, to the hunting and consumption of wild animals and the overlap of livestock and wildlife populations. Deforestation of tropical rainforests would be the link linking climate change and new pandemics into a single phenomenon.

But already here important steps in the environmentalist reasoning of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency grate. In the first place, social relations under these tendencies are desubjectivized, classes and human groups disappear and are reduced to mere cogs responding mechanically to a structure superseding them. For example, in the case of the Chinese wet markets where the disease emerged, he simply refers to the authorities’ tolerance of the more or less industrial breeding of wild animals and points out that it was a new good business with international sales possibilities by way of state permissiveness.

Environmentalism overlooks that underlying the expansion of this type of business in China is the politically orchestrated pressure on an impoverished peasantry. Chinese capital was aware at all times from its bid to become the world’s factory, that in order to maintain competitive wages and attract investment it needed to keep prices of staple foods at rock-bottom levels. The peasantry paid for much of the industrialization in hunger. And to preserve social peace, i.e., to dampen class struggle, the Chinese state encouraged peasants to bring wild animals to market.

This is not the result of a supposed intrinsic need to extract and commodify the rainforests inherent to the Global North’ slate capitalism, as environmentalism claims and as Andreas Malm reports in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency . It was a marginal consequence, mediated by the class struggle, of Chinese capital’s accumulation needs. But Malm, entrenched in the idea of late capitalism, a Mandelist concept he repeats ad nauseam, cannot see it. For him, as for his teacher Mandel, capitalism is above all a system of unequal exchange between the bourgeoisies of the North and of the South, not a global system of exploitation of labor.

From academic Marxism to catastrophist environmentalism

Andreas Malm
Andreas Malm, the most widely read author today of an environmentalism claiming Marxist roots

The second part of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency focuses on disaster theory, one of those products of academic Marxism guaranteeing university places and citations for scholars by creating a discipline out of a truism. In their case the starting truism is that it is not the natural phenomena themselves but the vulnerability – a concept defined and institutionalized by them and their influence – created by social and class conditions, what turns an earthquake, epidemic or flood into a real disaster rather than a mere one-time problem.

But Andreas Malm’s environmentalism, heir in so many ways to Mandel’s pseudo-Marxism, cannot accept the materialist critique of history and refuses -even implicitly- to accept the centrality of the class struggle. So earthquakes, floods or epidemics have to be equated with social reality in their leading role over history. The driving force of history would no longer be class struggle, but the pressure of natural disasters on social systems. Welcome to environmentalism.

The particularity of our era would be that fossil capital – another twisted concept of the pseudo-Marxist environmentalism of Andreas Malm to which he has already devoted a book – would have so modified the climate and the environment as to make a permanent tendency to catastrophe inevitable. Climate change, by itself, without class struggle, would threaten the end of capitalism as a whole. Against all rational or empirical evidence, it espouses the idea that accumulation would become impossible above a certain level of climate disasters and damage. The logical leap is not innocent either, it helps him to make the leap to what he calls environmental Leninism.

Environmental Leninism

From there he establishes an equality between what climate change is today, and what the outbreak of the first imperialist world war meant. Forgetting that Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky saw in it the passage of capitalism into its decadent phase and not just a catastrophe, he pretends to tell us that what urged the revolutionaries of a century ago into action was the urgence to face the catastrophe. Everything else would be the mere result of a facing the causes and not just the symptoms of the war… which is but a half-truth if it is not specified what those causes were and how they were understood by revolutionaries and millions of workers back then.

As if this implied nonsense –direct heir of Mandel and Trotsko-Stalinism – were not enough, this reductionist, ambiguous and above all worker-invisibilizing framework in their own revolution, is followed by a cascade of infamous but illuminating comparisons… For instance the recent counterpart of the struggle for the 10-hour day, one of the first manifestations of the proletariat as a class capable of fighting as such globally, would today be the restrictions on logging and the reinforcement of forestry inspectors made by President Lula in Brazil from 2012 to 2014.

The emergence of a global political subject able to globally modify the conditions of exploitation through its struggle is equated with the forestry decrees of a government whose goal was to assert the overall interest of Brazilian national capital by disciplining its most immediatist factions with regulations.

In reality, Andreas Malm does not go beyond the rhetorical trick, the seductive witticism typical of the university student circle. Leninism for Malm and the environmentalism he represents would be nothing more than using a sense of urgency to impose a series of supposedly revolutionary measures against fossil capitalism.

The “revolutionary measures” proposed by environmentalism

The proposed revolutionary measures give an idea of the packaging of the project. The first, an audit of production chains:

We will conduct meticulous input-output analyses and determine exactly how much of the tropics’ land is being appropriated. Then we will put an end to that appropriation by cutting the chains that reach into the tropics […] The time has come to stow the claws of unequal exchange, which is already a threat to all.

Andreas Malm. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

But of course, if capitalism is just unequal exchange between the bourgeoisies and capitals of the North and those of the South, let no one expect revolutionary measures reducing exploitation, affirming universal human needs or aiming at the decommodification of society

We will finance the reforestation and repopulation of tropical regions so far devoted to the consumption of the North. […] The first thing is a ban on the importation of meat from countries that are located in or border the tropics

Andreas Malm. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

Like the Mandelists and the rest of Trotsko-Stalinism, he cloaks with the slogan of expropriation the goal of the expropriations. Andreas Malm would apparently restrict it to oil companies, which, once in state hands, he would turn into CO2capture utilities.

But who would undertake this so-called revolution changing fuels and raw materials without changing the relations of production?

Environmentalism changes sources of energy and raw materials without changing production relations

Environmentalism’s revolution has a problem: it lacks a political subject. In fact, in its account of society and history, by eliminating the class struggle, historical subjects disappear. Nature versus systems. Humans would be little more than objects within systems and shaken between them and a limiting and limited natural environment. Even the World Revolution recounted by Andreas Malm does not seem to have had any other subject than a handful of thinkers. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg or Trotsky, are suddenly turned into pre-digital youtubers: solitary figures who would have preached to the universe at large by bringing about systemic changes beyond the famous sense of urgency.

But even for academic Marxism it is impossible to do politics without political subjects. So when we reach page 209 of the 236 of the Spanish edition, it finally reveals who is the subject of this environmentalism claiming to be Leninist and revolutionary: the state. The same state we enjoy right now. State as in state capitalism. In other words the common household of the ruling class, and the ruling class itself become the leading revolutionary protagonists.

This is when we understand the true meaning of the urgency peddled to us by Andreas Malm in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. In the class-struggle-free history of Andreas Malm and environmentalism, the soviets, assemblies and committees, the forms of mass organization of workers capable of taking history into their own hands and becoming a transitional state, if they ever existed simply happened, appeared. The bad things about spontaneous generation: there is no point in waiting for them to reappear. In such case, the revolution has to be made together with the bourgeoisie, it goes without saying.

We have just defended that the capitalist state is, by nature, incapable of taking those steps. And yet we have no other form of State. A socialist state based on soviets will not miraculously come into being overnight. It does not seem likely that a dual power with the democratic organs of the proletariat will materialize in the near future (or ever). To hope for its arrival would be illusory as well as criminal, so we can only work with the sad bourgeois State, tied as always to the circuits of capital.

Andreas Malm. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

To fight against the bourgeoisie, capital and the state would be Ilusory and criminal. All that can be achieved is to fight within the state by framing and mobilizing the greatest number of -classless, of course- people in order to force the state to change the balance of forces that is condensed in its interior. Put simply: mobilizing by taking two supply links further the Green Deal without stepping for a moment out of line with the Sacred Climate Union.

The sad spectacle of an environmentalism calling itself Marxist

Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm, a book predating Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency in which he makes the environmentalist thesis that the enemy would be fossil capital, not (sustainable) capitalism.

Andreas Malm, who admits to having been an anarchist when he was young but who does not fail to make Mandelist references on almost every page of Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, nicely embodies a certain end of political trajectory. An infamous trajectory that begins during the Second World War -when Mandel joins the still Fourth International- which soon turns into a defense of state capitalism, quickly turning into a defense of Stalinism and nationalism -especially of the semi-colonial countries– and from the 1970s onwards to European versions of identitarianism and environmentalism.

They are that left wing of the political apparatus which claims to be anti-capitalist and even Trotskyist but has been mummifying Trotsky for decades and seeking reconciliation with Stalinism – that is, with the most brutal counterrevolution – to finally today, openly stating that working towards the Workers’ Revolution would be Ilusory and criminal.

The pretended environmental Marxisms, the fake environmental Leninism is not the communist program with a coda or a green correction, it is once again, state capitalism and sacred union – yesterday an anti-fascist one, today an environmnetalist one– clamoring in the name of a supposedsense of urgency, to subject workers, and the universal human needs and the future they represent, to the demands of accumulation, no matter what.

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